For years, Sarah Symmons toted a potted muscadine vine every time she moved to a new rental house. Nine years ago, she bought a home in Columbia and finally planted it in her yard.
See also: Foreclosures through the roof.
After she lost her job of 20 years and temporary work dried up, Symmons went on unemployment last year. But it wasn't enough to keep up with the mortgage payments. At 60, she was on the brink of losing not just her vine, but her home as well.
Enter the South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program (SC HELP). The federally funded program provided an interest-free loan that allowed Symmons to pay her mortgage while she continued looking for a job.
The program helps borrowers facing foreclosure due to circumstances beyond their control, such as unemployment, substantial reduction in self-employed income, catastrophic health expenses, divorce or the death of a spouse.
More than 43 percent of the roughly 3,900 South Carolina homeowners seeking assistance last year were 50 or older.
Symmons is one of many South Carolinians who have faced losing their home. Last year, the state's 2011 foreclosure rate was 1.43 percent, roughly the same as the national average, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc.
South Carolina, which was awarded more than $295 million and began the program in January 2011, is one of 18 states and the District of Columbia that received money from the federal government's Hardest Hit Fund to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. SC HELP hopes to assist up to 33,000 homeowners at high risk of foreclosure.
"We're focused on helping folks bridge across a time of difficulty," said Matt Rivers, director of SC HELP.
The program can help qualifying homeowners three ways:
- Provide a one-time loan of up to $20,000 to bring them current if they are behind on their mortgage payments.
- Make monthly payments to lenders for up to 12 or 24 months (depending on county) to a maximum of $36,000.
- Provide a one-time grant of up to $5,000 directly to a homeowner transitioning to renting when mortgages cannot be salvaged and a short sale or deed in lieu of foreclosure is completed.
Property owners must complete an application and provide documentation that includes proof that the mortgage delinquency is the result of a hardship beyond their control and that they live in the house full time. Although there is no income limit, assistance is limited to first mortgages with a maximum value of $729,750.
Funds are provided as interest-free loans, which are forgiven at a rate of 20 percent a year. If a homeowner remains in the house five years, the loan doesn't have to be repaid.
Many retirees living on a fixed income still have mortgages, said Barbara J. Robinson, executive director of the Catawba Area Agency on Aging in Rock Hill. "Any little hiccup in their life is going to put them on the edge."
Teresa Arnold, AARP South Carolina associate state director, said, "SC HELP is just a tremendous resource that can make a difference until they get back on their feet."
But SC HELP does not assist homeowners whose finances are merely overextended.
"Frequently we are unable to help because the borrowers don't have a hardship so much as a long-term affordability problem," said Clayton Ingram, communications director for the state Housing Finance and Development Authority, which operates the program. "High fuel, groceries and utilities are not qualifying hardships. … They are employed and could afford their mortgage except for the other expenses."
SC HELP is temporary. "We're not here to sustain people forever," said Rivers, the program's director.
For Symmons, SC HELP meant maintaining her independence. "Without this program, I would have lost my house."
To apply, go to SCMortgageHelp.com, or call 855-435-7472 toll-free.
Also of interest: New mortgage aid program. >>
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